Tuesday, January 31, 2012

ASF: "The 39 Steps"

Jen Nelson Lane has her hands (ears & eyes) full as Stage Manager for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's farcical rendering of The 39 Steps, Patrick Barlow's adaptation of John Buchan's 1915 novel and the now-classic 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock based on it. -- With upwards of 1000 sound and lighting cues coming at breakneck speed, Ms. Lane's spot-on timing and crisp delivery of them in tandem with director Nancy Rominger's expert actors makes the production an entertaining and sometimes silly [a la Monty Python] diversion.

Since its debut in England in 2005, the play has been delighting audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, winning Olivier-Drama Desk-and Tony Awards, having long-runs in both London's West End and New York's Broadway, and recently reaching the community, university, and even high school circuits.

Bookended in short narrative scenes by the play's protagonist Richard Hannay, the story s a familiar old-fashioned spy-thriller in which an unsuspecting innocent is on the run and must clear his name as a suspected murderer while simultaneously attempting to save the world by thwarting a sinister plot to smuggle military secrets out of the country and into the hands of the enemy.

Hannay gets into and out of numerous scrapes with a large catalogue of characters: music hall entertainers (especially a Mr. Memory), the law, the outlaws, assorted innkeepers, farmers, et al., as he travels to Scotland in search of a Professor Jordan, a man who could resolve his dilemma. -- [Though the novel did not provide one, Hitchcock provided a "blonde woman" (one of Hitch's favorite characters) to enhance the adventure, and this is retained in the stage production.]

The conceit here is that all the characters in The 39 Steps are played by a total of four actors: Hannay [Peter Simon Hilton: welcome back again from last season], three women Hannay meets [Vanessa Morosco in her debut with ASF], and two "Clowns" [Brik Berkes: also in a welcome return from last season, and newcomer to ASF Louis Butelli] who play all the other roles, male and female, and who must change character quickly/instantly, sometimes more than once in a given scene.

As played on Peter Hicks's "bare" music hall stage, with plenty of props, furniture, and door/window frames that are used in various & inventive ways throughout (doing double-duty at times), with Jacob Sullivan's authentic & creative sound effects, and with Brent Rominger's clever period sounding & recognizable spy-genre score, the director has a field day maneuvering her actors from place to place and from character to character, challenging them and the design & technical crew to keep the pace and the sophisticated humor of the story. And the text even has several references to other Hitchcock films -- Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest -- and even the British exclamation "Bob's your uncle" has its place.

Mr. Hilton plays Hannay as a debonair sort and a man "tired of life" who drags himself to the London Palladium to see Mr. Memory, a man with encyclopedic knowledge, and where he is confronted by Annabella Schmidt: Ms. Morosceo plays her as a a mysterious and sultry secret agent with a pronounced Teutonic accent. When she is stabbed in the back clasping a map of Scotland, sometime after telling him that military secrets are going to be smuggled out of the country, enigmatically referring to "the 39 steps", and to beware of a man with one joint missing from a finger, Hannay begins his adventure.

En route to Scotland on a train [inventively crafted out of steamer trunks] the newspapers report that Hannay is the chief suspect in Anabella's murder. To avoid capture by train inspectors, Hannay finds himself in a compartment with Pamela [Ms. Morosco again in a recurring role as a feisty foil to Hannay] whom he kisses as a distraction, but she gives him up...and he then escapes on the Firth of Forth Bridge, finding refuge temporarily with an old man and his young wife Margaret [here Ms. Morosco plays her as an unspoiled and generous woman who helps Hannay escape through the "Rear Window" of their cottage].

Eventually finding the professor, he sees one joint missing from a finger and is then a target himself, remarkably surviving, getting back to London with Pamela after an overnight stop in a hotel where she discovers Hannay is telling the truth, and winding up back at the Palladium where he figures out that Mr. Memory can solve the riddle of "the 39 steps"...a complex military formula.

While the plot gets more convoluted at every turn, the actors meet all its challenges head on. Mr. Hilton shows Hannay to be resourceful, clever, and sardonic as he meets each obstacle and confronts all antagonists with sophisticated elan, hardly ever getting ruffled, and allowing a sense of humor to grace his action. -- Ms. Morosco distinguishes each of her three roles so well that one hardly knows it is the same actress; and while Annabella and Margaret appear only briefly, they make an impression; but Pamela is Hannay's equal in spunk & wit, and winds up being a fine romantic match for the confirmed bachelor.

Arguably the best comic moments -- and there are many of them in this two act/two hour production -- are reserved for Messrs. Butelli and Berkes, as they change costume quickly off-stage or right before our eyes, becoming a wide assortment of eccentrics, policemen & thugs, music hall entertainers, silly old men & women, hotel keepers, etc. -- with over-the-top Scottish accents much of the time. And each one is clearly defined by a gesture, a posture, a mannerism, a vocal texture, or an attitude that makes them distinct...exceptional performances. -- And, let's face it, they move the plot better than any narrative could. They get quite a workout here, much to the audience's pleasure.

Though there are a few stage "bits" that are somewhat indulgent, and the Pythonesque humor is an aquired taste, The 39 Steps is just the right antidote for the winter blues.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Cloverdale Playhouse: History in the Making

The Cloverdale Playhouse in Montgomery will open its inaugural season -- February 2-12 -- with D. L. Coburn's tragicomedy The Gin Game, the 1978 Pulitzer Prize winning play that then starred Jessica Tandy & Hume Cronyn, America's first-couple of theatre.

And Montgomery is fortunate in having its own "first couple" -- Eleanor Davis and Bill Nowell -- in the roles of Fonsea Dorsey and Weller Martin, two independent-minded seniors who match wits and wills over a series of card games played in a retirement home, revealing much about their lives and ours in frequently funny and always perceptive ways.

Under Artistic Director Greg Thornton's direction, this production is eagerly awaited by the Montgomery theatre going community. Of Ms. Davis & Mr. Nowell, Mr. Thornton says: "The history that Eleanor and Bill carry into this production is impressive...the fact that they are gracing the Playhouse stage with their performances in this inaugural production is a tremendous christening of the Cloverdale Playhouse."

Between them these two actors have performed on virtually every stage in the area. And they do it for the sheer "love" of it: "amateur" in the very best sense of the word.

Regardless of their off-stage careers, Ms. Davis & Mr. Nowell have rarely been off the stage, playing in comedies, musicals, and serious drama in featured roles and cameo appearances, always bringing a sense of professionalism & joy while sharing their expertise & experience with neophyte actors (often mentoring them as well), and always open to improving their craft. --- And audiences familiar with their stage careers respond to their mere presence on program cast lists knowing they are in for a treat, a few surprises, and a confidence in performing that make them feel they are in good hands.

Curiously, they have never been on stage together; and they are revelling in this opportunity. There are a lot of challenges to their complex roles. Mr. Nowell has wanted to do his role for a long time and he and Ms. Davis find it to be their "biggest challenge and most rewarding experience", largely due in their estimation to the organic direction of Mr. Thornton who "molds them with suggestions so naturally that actors make discoveries for themselves." They are quick to notice that as an actor himself, Mr. Thornton "knows the needs of the actors he directs."

And the mutual admiration extends to designers, stage management, and all the volunteers who collaborate in making the production a reality.

Yes, Bill & Eleanor go on "an emotional roller coaster ride" in the course of the play that makes the experience "almost overwhelming" when put in the light of its being the inaugural production at the Playhouse; but they are ready for it. They are consumate professionals.

With just a few days to go before opening night, final touches are being made to the set & costumes, and the performances are being fine-tuned to be ready for the first audience. -- And since Montgomery has been without its own community theatre since the Montgomery Little Theatre closed some decades ago, Ms. Davis aptly says that she is part of its "coming full circle" that she is "honored" to be a part of it and is "fulfilling a dream".

Tickets are going fast. For an opportunity of being a part of this historic moment in Montgomery theatre, go to http://www.cloverdaleplayhouse.org/ or e-mail boxoffice@cloverdaleplayhouse.org or phone (334) 262-1530.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Millbrook: "Fiddler on the Roof"

Something right is going on in Millbrook! Extra chairs are being set up for virtually every performance of Karen Black's directorial debut of Fiddler on the Roof with the Millbrook Community Players, and enthusiastic standing ovations are common.

Based on Sholem Aleichem's Tevye & His Daughters stories, its simple choreography [Beth Crumbley] and minimalist musical accompaniment on piano [Katy Gerlach] and "fiddles" [Esther Hart & Benjamin Simon], Ms. Black's intelligently edited production comes in at about 2 1/2 hours for its 2 acts.

Since the multiple prize-winning musical hit Broadway decades ago, it has been an international favorite in both professional and amateur theatres, due in large part to its memorable score -- "Sunrise, Sunset", "Matchmaker", "If I Were a Rich Man", and "Tradition" among the featured songs -- and its beloved central character Tevye, whose conversations with God and his own conscience reveal the humanity of a Russian Jewish peasant who is faced with three of his daughters rebelling against the tradition of arranged marriages and the Tzar's pogroms that persecuted the Jews.

The play begins with the citizens of the small remote shtetl of Anatevka -- led by Tevye [a robust David Kensen] -- singing a rousing version of "Tradition", and establishing the long respected divisions of responsibility in the household -- the papa (the head, the decision maker), the mama, the children, et al -- and leading to the introduction of Golde [Judi Brown as Tevye's understated but strong-willed wife] and the local matchmaker Yente [Sharon Demuth embuing the role with several stereotypical and largely comical vocal & physical mannerisms] who comes with news that Lazar Wolf [Mark McGuire], a rich butcher, likes their eldest daughter Tzeitel [Rachel Russo]...a good "match" were it not for the fact that he is old and that Tzeitel likes the young tailor Motel [Jon Greenawalt]. The "match" is agreed however, so when Tevye realized that Tzeitel won't be swayed and that love ought to be the reason for marriage, he must save face by getting Lazar Wolf to agree to not marry his daughter.

Further along in the play, two more daughters flaunt tradition by arranging their own marriages; "unheard of" says Tevye...but he relents on Hodel [Jubilee Lofgren] marrying the young teacher Perchik [Matt Jordan] despite his revolutionary views of the world and his passion for educating even girls; however, when Chava [Shelby Tennimon] wants to marry Fyedka [Brooks Burnett] outside the Jewish faith, Tevye can not bear it and disowns her: she is "dead to him".

Times are changing -- it's 1905, and the modern world is upon them. Does one go along with the times, or does one cling to the traditions of thousands of years? The inevitability of change is a major concern in this play, and Tevye's soul-searching moments punctuate the journey all are going on. Is there a way to sustain tradition and simultaneously shift into the modern world? Tevye regularly tries to look at both sides; while interpreting the Bible with misquotes galore and home-spun wisdom, he posits one side and then says "on the other hand", giving credence to opposing views. -- Along the way, he is supported and controlled by the no-nonsense practical advice given in deadpan truthfulness by Ms. Brown's Golde, and when he relents, it is always on the side of doing what is best, regardless of tradition.

Though the peasants have lived in relative harmony with their Russian overlords, the constublary and its power lurk in plain sight, and ultimately evict the citizens who must find new places to live as the play ends.

It has been an entertaining journey, peopled by characters who get us to care about their very human conflicts of family and love, ones which reach into every home and that are often out of balance, but which can be brought together by tradition and joy symbolized by the fiddler.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

ASF: "In the Book of..."

Alabama Shakespeare Festival's playwright-in-residence John Walch's In the Book of... was conceived at least a year before Alabama's House Bill 56 -- a notorious immigration law touted as the strongest in the country -- made national & international headlines, pitting Xenophobic extremists against more tolerant Alabamians.

A World Premier showing now in the Octagon Theatre for only a few weeks, Walch based his play in part on the Old Testament's Book of Ruth, a model of compasionate understanding of strangers in a strange land that could well serve contemporary circumstances by offering peaceful ways to combat ignorance and come to terms with neighbors seeking a better life on America's shores.

Walch's story centers on Anisah [Sarah Corey] an Afghan translator for Lt. Naomi Watkins [Rachel Leslie]; when each woman loses a husband in the war, their bond is strengthened, and Naomi helps bring her friend to the fictitious town of Broxton, MS -- unfortunately as an illegal immigrant. Each becomes a source of the other's strength as they deal with the effects of war, their husbands' deaths, and the impact of the local community's intollerance of strangers spearheaded by Naomi's sister-in-law Gail [Blair Sams] who is campaigning for mayor of Broxton, broom in hand, on a platform of "sweeping out" all illegals.

The rhetoric builds, with mob mentality drowning out clear-headed discussion, and escalates to other altercations. -- It does not help that Gail's husband Bo Sr. [Christopher Gerson] is one of many today who has lost his job and is reduced to working in a fast food extablishment, while their son Bo Jr. [Matt Dickson] -- still damaged from guilt over his brother's accidental death and swearing never to enjoy life -- is a landscaper in difficult straits in hiring workers.

The common complaints of foreigners (legal or illegal) taking jobs away from native-born Americans fuels the fire, though it is clearly not a real issue since, as in real life, the natives won't do the manual labor that only immigrants seem to be willing to do. -- So Bo winds up hiring and quickly falling in love with Anisah, her willingness to learn American ways and assimilate into the culture in completely non-threatening ways is endearing both to Bo and to the audience.

Perhaps Walch's strongest script elements are the balance he achieves in both developing complex characters and the fairness with which he treats these sensitive issues; it is important to know, for example, that there is no clear-cut delineation between good and evil characters, that seemingly narrowminded ones like Gail are simultaneously lovingly passionate in the defense of family, and that the issues regarding illegal immigrants are complex -- that extremes of any sort will not achieve anything other than continued intimidation and harrassment, mistrust and violent repurcussions.

Though there are some eerie off-stage sound effects of sweeping brooms combined with choral chants against illegals, much of the on-stage action is told with an acknowledgement of humor mixed with the serious. -- As Anisah innocently attempts to record American colloquialisms and learns to spit watermelon seeds and catch fireflies, she is quick to let others know that she is "an imigrant, not an idiot".

The acting company are all new to ASF, with the exception of Ms. Corey who played Anisah in the Southern Writers' Project staged reading of In the Book of... on its first incarnation. -- And they are the strength of this production. Walch's episodic structure contains a deliberate exposition followed by numerous short scenes in this two-and-a-half-hour play and a fairly abrupt change of heart by Gail at the end.

A true ensemble company of actors, they interpret under Risa Brainin's crisp direction, the intentions of the playwright, the human implications of his themes, and the complexity of the individuals and their relationships. To their credit, audiences might switch allegiances several times during the presentation: each side makes sense, and even their inherent contradictions create far more interesting personalities than ones that could be easily categorized. The credibility of each role and the sensitivity with which they inhabit their characters also allow us to evaluate our own social & political beliefs & behavior, provoking discussion of the significant issues facing us today.